The spine is one of the most amazing and important parts of the human body – it’s both strong and flexible at the same time – often more than we even know. We put strain on our spines in the course of everyday life and most of the time, our strong backbones can handle it. But if you’ve had back pain, you know that when something goes wrong it can be debilitating. If not, you’ll want to make sure you do everything you can to stay active and pain free. How? Give your spine the love that it needs! Here are a few simple ways to prevent injury and maintain a strong, healthy spine:
Take care of your whole self. Not surprisingly, spine health is tied to whole body health. This rule applies to just about any body part. If you get enough sleep, drink plenty of water and consume a healthy diet, your whole body will feel better and do better. If you drink (alcohol) or use tobacco, those are big factors too. Minimize alcohol consumption, and talk to your primary care physician about resources to help you quit smoking.
Get moving. Did you know that exercise helps your body long after you’ve finished a workout? In addition to supporting an increased metabolic rate, regular exercise maintains essential blood flow which carries nutrients to all of your muscles and bones. And even moderate weight training builds muscle strength which provides balanced support for your core.
At the very least, it’s important to avoid sitting for extended periods of time, which has been shown to be as harmful to your body as smoking! Schedule short breaks on your calendar when at work, and try to take a moment to stand and stretch when traveling (only when it’s been deemed safe to get up and move!) Moving also helps you to check and reset your posture. Poor posture puts extra strain on your spine and can lead to or exacerbate back and neck pain. Use that same timer at work to do a ‘posture check’ to make sure you are not slouching. Be mindful too of when and how you use your cell phone or tablet. It’s hard to believe, but according to NBC’s Today Show, we exert up to 60 pounds of force on our necks by tilting our heads forward, in the way that many of us do when checking our phones! Think about that the next time your head is buried in an app.
#BeActive, but be smart too. People who are already active and regularly getting plenty of exercise are on the right track, but you can have too much of a good thing. No matter what your sport or level of competition, you have to be smart. Always start with a good warm up. Don’t show up to the start of a 5K without a warmup jog, and don’t tee off on the first hole without spending some time on the driving range first! Get your muscles warm and then do some stretching – never stretch first.
Next, know your limits. It’s ok to push yourself and aim for that new “PB” (personal best), but don’t push too far. How far is too far? That’s a question that only you can answer, but keep in mind that increases in intensity should be incremental and not exponential. For example, if you typically exercise for 30 minutes, try 40 or 45 before you go to an hour. Be especially aware of moderate increase when strength training and doing high-intensity workouts.
Finally, mix it up every now and then! Alternate high impact with low impact activities. Mix in a day of anaerobic (strength) training with your aerobic workouts. Runners often find that repeated long runs – especially when done on concrete or other hard surfaces – put strain on the lower spine. Add in a day of biking, strength training or swimming to give your body a break!
Our spines are one of the most important parts of our skeletal systems, so take good care of it and it will take good care of you!